Oh, those crazy snowboarders. How vividly I remember joining the sixth grade ski club, having never worn a ski in my life, and being terrorized by their kind. They seemed bound and determined to bury me alive in snow, and I made it all the easier since the only way I could stop was to fall down. Hey, at least they were having fun. But we are easily fooled. Skiing and snowboarding are made to look easy by seasoned professionals, but the fact of the matter is that they are two of the most difficult sports in existence. A blend of perfected balance and an apparent death wish, snowboarding is given an all new face in First Descent.
The film is really two movies in one. The core story chronicles the adventures of Shawn Farmer, Terje Haakonsen, Nick Peralta, Hannah Teter, and Shaun White – five of the best snowboarders in the world – as they take on the ever-intimidating peaks of Valdez, Alaska. Farmer is regarded as one of the founding fathers of the sport. In his late thirties, Farmer still possesses the same wild abandon and passion for the sport as today’s teenage prodigy counterparts. Haakonsen is the pride of Norway, Peralta has brought ingenuity over the years, and Teter and White are the two most talented and popular snowboarders in the country today.
Interspersed with their adventure are segments recounting the beginnings and evolution of the sport. There is a lot of archived footage to give us a good idea of how the sport has progressed in its brief but riotous history. There is also some insight into how the sport will evolve in the coming decade.
Snowboarders will revel in the stunning and beautiful footage captured by Kemp Curly and Kevin Harrison. The Alaska back country is some of the most gorgeous terrain in the world, and here it is so clear that it feels like you can just reach out and make a snowball. The actual snowboarding action is nothing short of mesmerizing as these five experts risk their lives for our enjoyment. A sequence involving snowboarder Travis Rice’s run-in with an avalanche is some of the most astonishing footage I have ever seen. The title of the film itself comes from Terje Haakonsen’s “first descent” from a peak called “7601.” That’s right – that would be the peak’s height above sea level. And it gets better – the first section sports a 60% decline. The only way I would ever try that would be if my doctor told me I had twenty-four hours to live.
As enthralling as the film is, it does overstay its welcome at 110 minutes. Snowboarding junkies will undoubtedly disagree, but the film could have been twenty minutes shorter with no damage done. The last half hour or so feels a bit dragged out as the boarders keep trying to decide which peaks to ride and if it’s safe enough to do so.
It’s comforting that films like this can be made. It shows that the market is expanding. Just ten years ago snowboarding was one of the biggest underground niche sports, but with the help of the X-Games and rising interest on slopes worldwide, snowboarding is proving to be a breakout sport that can only grow and prosper further. First Descent is a must-see for snowboarders and fans alike, but even neutral parties like me can take something away from it.
Studio: Universal Pictures
Length: 110 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and a momentary drug reference.
Theatrical Release: December 2, 2005
Directed by: Kemp Curly & Kevin Harris
Written by: N/A
Cast: Shawn Farmer, Terje Haakonsen, Nick Peralta, Hannah Teter, Shaun White, Travis Rice